Many Happy Returns

I don’t normally do this. When I buy something, I really do intend to put it into use.

But, the other week, I found myself looking at a couple neutral colored purses on the rack at a fashion outlet. I wanted something on the small side, but big enough to accommodate my cell phone and brush — something that would go with my new pink and green floral print linen dress. A summer handbag.

I found two contenders, neither very pricey, and couldn’t make up my mind.

As I stood in front of the register, with both, the clerk stared at me when I questioned their return policy. Well, of course, you can return an item within 30 days of purchase, if returned with a receipt and all the tags still in place.

She looked at me like I must have been living under a rock most of my life.

When I got home and examined both next to my summer dress and shoes, I formed a preference. I was surprisingly pleased, almost gleeful about setting both handbags in the seat next to mine for the short drive back to Riverpoint Plaza, so I could to transact the return.

It was easy. No cash was exchanged, only my credit card was re-swiped. I made a mental note to check on this month’s statement to make sure the credit was posted.

I kept thinking about the phrase, Many Happy Returns. I looked up the entry on Wikipedia.

“Many happy returns” is a greeting which is used by some on birthdays, and by others in response to “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.” Since the 18th century this has been used as a salutation to offer the hope that a happy day being marked would recur many more times. “

I now had a vastly different understanding of the phrase.

I think of the fantastic sense of freedom I have when I can re-choose something, or make a new choice.

At restaurants, I love it when I find myself gravitating towards the Alaskan Salmon, then end up getting the duck when the waitress actually asks (I figure I can get a single portion of nice quality seafood more easily than prepare a duck leg the French way).

I might get a kick over picking out a route back home from a destination and find myself changing my route multiple times after I get a beat on traffic and construction.

And who doesn’t fight with their couch buddy over the right to hold the remote during a TV night at home?

There’s something about exercising your right to re-choose that’s almost more liberating than making the choice in the first place. It’s great to remind myself that there’s no judgment involved in exercising a preference, even in changing my mind.

I’m not a big shopper. I don’t consider it a sport or hobby. I don’t think I’ll ever plan a vacation around bringing something back home from a foreign land — even if it’s not something my friends will likely have (and I do like feeling special).

I don’t think I’ll look into ways to stretch a store’s return policy or shop with the intention of bringing something back as a strategy to feel the short-term thrill of stepping into something I can’t afford.

But I like to feel the freedom of changing my mind. I like being able to change my mind without the weight of any judgment, even my own.

A shopping do-over is no small thing.

 

Flow Moment

Last week, when I was taking my dog, India, out for her morning walk, I found myself stopped in front of a modest Chicago brick two-flat.

I wasn’t sure why I stopped.

It was 7:00 AM and quiet. Very few cars were moving along the narrow street and commuters were not yet scurrying off to the nearby train station. India was not curling her butt down in preparation for her toilet routine, nor was she stationed motionless in front of a tree, waiting for a squirrel to come down and rejoin her on the earth plane.

I felt compelled to stop as if some invisible force wanted me to notice something –- and damn if I could figure out what was special.

Unconsciously, I took a deep breath in. I tried to decode the mixture of fragrances of springtime flowers my neighbors planted along their small, neat front lawns.   I scanned the street for activity, looking for other dogs (and their people) that we should try to navigate around.

A small bead of sweat rolled down my back. I thought about the dew point and conjectured that it would be getting uncomfortably humid as the day wore on. I mean, if I was sweating already this early in the morning….

What was special? Nothing and EVERYTHING.

I don’t take the same route every morning. And today, I found myself looking at an odd sort of fountain in front of a home on Eastwood.

The fountain itself was noticeably out of place. A stone figure, like a 15th century Botticelli angel, poured water from one pot into another vessel. It belonged in Rome or at Versace’s ornately decorated mansion in South Beach.

But here it was in 60625.

I tuned in to the sound of the water flowing. Ah, what is it about the sound of water?…

I thought about people who like to sleep near the ocean so they can hear the sound of waves. I thought about my own childhood in Melrose Park.

There used to be a small channel that ran along the perimeter of the modest shopping center on the corner of North and 9th. We called it Silver Creek and, to some extent, it was more of a dumping ground than a body of water.

Before everyone was concerned about environmental impact, people threw all sorts of things into Silver Creek. It was rumored to have gotten its name because Sherwin Williams, which had a manufacturing plant nearby, used to dump paint into it, giving the water a grayish tint.

As a twelve year-old, when hanging over the rail of the tiny pedestrian bridge that crossed it, I’d see crumpled soda cans, store flyers and coupons soaking in maybe 6” of water, tree branches, large stones, abandoned shopping carts other kids pushed in on a lark…

And still the current flowed. The direction and force of the stream changed depending on the curves of the channel at any point and the randomly landed objects, the garbage, the water had to move around.

Silver Creek was basically full of crap –- and yet it flowed.

There is something so comforting about the way water flows… despite obstacles, despite limited volume. Its movement is purifying and generous. Whether coming from mountains, or from larger bodies of water, it flows until there is no more.

I know the flowing water of the small lawn fountain in front of me worked with the help of electricity, but in its own magic, I could feel the pull of gravity and the pull of my own conscious focus. The sight and sound of the cascade brought me to so many different places while I stood still in one place. I felt so grateful.

I feel grateful for anything that makes me stop and take a deep breath; listen with unexpected openness; think of journeys instead of destinations; marvel at the notion of movement — even if it’s subtle, even if something is traveling only inches or from one container to another; grateful to be reminded of ways to refresh myself…

Stopping in front of a fountain, and basking in a flow moment, is no small thing.

Following the Footsteps

It’s Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of summer. As a country, we take our folding lawn chairs and coolers out of storage and we gather at barbecues. Maybe we’ll mark the day by joining neighbors to line a street for a morning parade.

I know Memorial Day was created for us to consider sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, whose lives were lost in the service of our country. I have come to view the holiday in a broader context.

I want to take time to remember the lives of family members and strangers that have offered lessons to me or inspired me.

I don’t normally think of myself as sentimental and am not a history buff, but I can’t help but notice that my travels to all range of destinations have included a trip to a cemetery whose history is intertwined with the location.

During my trip to Buenos Aires a couple years ago, I walked between the elaborate tombs of Le Recoleta Cemetery to see the final resting spot of Eva Peron (her tomb is marked by her maiden name, Duarte).

After descending the narrow and steeply inclined streets of Monmartre, on a visit to Paris in 2012, I paid attention to the line winding around the entrance to Pere Lachaise, a cemetery whose inhabitants include Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Maria Callas, although it seemed that the biggest crowds gathered to spend a few moments at Jim Morrison’s grave.

A visit to New Orleans, a favorite destination, would be incomplete without a visit to the Lafayette Cemetery along Washington Street in the Garden District. During my 2015 trip to Memphis, besides Graceland and Stax Records, one of the places I made a point of stopping by was historic Elmwood cemetery.

A slow walk among the gravestones (when I was ten, I remember my sister referring to cemeteries as marble orchards), I felt as if I was walking through time. I looked at low gravestones and read the names out loud. There were Chinese names in two public lots, probably belonging to laborers who were brought over to pick cotton or to work on bridges or railroads or other big projects. Chinese families, in Memphis, I thought. Who knew?

Besides flagged markers over the graves of Confederate soldiers and the tall monuments of wealthy, high society families, I looked for the grave of the University of Alabama’s famed football coach, Bear Bryant, and the grave of Sun Ra who, in his own way, led a revolution in music.

Here, in Chicago, I might get a history lesson by visiting Graceland cemetery, where visionary industrialist Gorge Pullman is buried, supposedly in a lead-lined coffin and a steel vault to dissuade the left leaning population from desecrating his grave. Or, I could visit Waldheim (Forest Home) just west of the city, where laborers, martyrs of the Haymarket Riot, are buried.

In the Jewish side of Waldheim, it’s not uncommon to see small black and white photographs decorate the upper corner of granite gravestones. I remember looking at the pictures and considering the dates that bookended different life spans. I’d think about the immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe; children and parents, grandparents.

Many souls came here following a dream. Many lived long lives and others only a few years. Some faced special challenges and others just did their jobs. Some changed the world (or, at least their corner of it), and others just showed up.

This Memorial Day, I’m thinking about all of them. Not just soldiers.

I don’t think it’s SACRIFICE that leads me to check out cemeteries wherever I travel, although sacrifices were made. I’m touched by the COURAGE of individuals, expressed in the choices and actions that defined their lives.

It takes courage to fight in a war. It takes courage to raise a family. It takes courage to leave home and start over in a new town or a new country. It takes courage to be an artist. It takes courage to be a complete human being, to navigate between personal interests and supporting the family and community, which may support you.

Remembering, with love and respect, the courage of those who have walked on this earth before you, is no small thing.

 

Open the Window

It’s already the middle of May, and I haven’t really felt, as the saying goes, that spring has sprung.

I’ve already transferred my warm weather clothes to my bedroom closet. In anticipation of picnics, I put a few bottles of sauvignon blanc in the fridge. I got tickets for several baseball games (and have kept them in a very visible spot to remember I had something to look forward to).

I considered that many springtime events had taken place, but it didn’t quite feel like spring.

I know my surroundings are greener, but it’s rained so much these past weeks and has remained cold (I still hear the furnace kicking on at night). I haven’t spent much time outdoors and don’t feel the spirit of the season.

I don’t know why this has been disheartening, but I’ve been so hungry to get some Vitamin D into my skin, to spend time outdoors.

It’s humbling to be reminded that each year is different and maybe it’s ironic, now that Mother’s Day is upon us, to see a demonstration of how Mother Nature will not be hurried. A warm temperature takes its own time in becoming an everyday forecast.

An unexpected impulse came over me as I looked out my living room window and saw the top of the maple tree just outside. It was as if I heard a voice inside saying…

Open the window…

Ah, when did WINDOW come to mean a set of options graphically displayed on my computer screen?

Acting on this impulse became a sort of ritual.

I adjust the blinds in my living room every day to let sunlight into my home, angling the slats to let shadow and light paint wide horizontal lines on the walls. But I haven’t pulled the blinds up and haven’t unlocked the hardware that kept the sliding casement tightly shut since last September.

Oh my God! Is this what it looks like OUTSIDE?

I could see down the block. Parked cars, in a colorful and random order, seemed like metal blossoms amid low lilac and forsythia bushes planted between the sidewalk and the street.

Then I ran my hands over the top of the white frame of the window. I had to unlock it before sliding it up. This slowed me down. It was as if some voice inside me wanted me to take in the moment. I heard, Do you know what you’re about to do?

I can’t say that an overwhelming scented breeze, happily avoiding the stairs, entered my apartment. It was more like the air that was inside the room, static for so long, moved out of the way. The air from outside and the air from inside my living room started mingling.

Boundaries were removed. A playful rebelliousness, a sort of freedom, filled my home.

As I took a couple breaths, I sensed that the air molecules from cooking last night’s dinner and the accumulation of chimney dust from my downstairs neighbor’s frequent winter fires represented a smaller percentage of the air inside me.

I naturally found myself making room for something new. To breathe in the moment — OPEN THE WINDOW.

Letting the outside in is no small thing.

Goose Island

On Sunday, I was running an errand in the Goose Island neighborhood. It’s a section of the city that was named after a small (maybe one square mile) patch of land that formed where two branches of the Chicago River met.

It probably got its name because it was a resting spot for migrating geese managing their seasonal trek. Now, the term refers to the original plot, accessible by bridge, and surrounding area, which is now a very hip, industrial area. It’s home to the Wrigley Gum’s research facility and a variety of businesses operating from restored lofts.

After I emerged from my shopping mission and headed toward my car, I caught sight of a band of geese at the corner of the parking lot.

On a small rectangle of grass, only feet away from the heavy traffic of Division Street, I saw two or three grown-up, long necked geese with iconic hunter green heads and maybe eight brownish goslings, adorable in their awkwardness.

It seemed that they didn’t belong in this scene; so close to delivery trucks and train tracks and discount store parking lots, only a couple miles from a great city’s business district.

Then I thought, Oh yes. They were here first (or, at least, their great, great, great grandparents were). After all, this is GOOSE ISLAND.

I watched them for a few minutes. I marveled at how at home they seemed to feel in this spot between stop signs and dandelions. They weren’t bothered by traffic. I looked on as they scoured the grass for discarded pieces of bread or potato chips, hoping to feast on what people threw away.

The simple beauty of this affected me on different levels.

It’s always great to see a slice of nature up close. Successfully hunting up things to eat, the geese were just being geese.

It was even more delightful to me that this bit of nature could be seen in an unnatural surrounding. It’s heartening to think that birds can find what they need on a small lawn near a busy street.

But I had to laugh at my own joke, my pronouncement. I considered that the sight shouldn’t surprise me being that I was in Goose Island.

It fit.

There’s a certain type of beauty when things FIT.

Mathematicians call proofs elegant when the logic seems to work. Crime detectives seem to think of perfect crimes only when they have figured out perfect solutions. Engineers may get effusive over gears that mesh or seals that are truly impenetrable.

I suppose, as a writer, I shouldn’t being surprised when a word or phrase really sums up the essence of something. It’s something to strive for. When a phrase is both truthful and ironic — it makes me happy.

So the family of geese was hanging out in what could be thought of as an ISLAND of grass, surrounding on all sides by concrete sidewalks and a blacktopped boulevard and parking lot. In GOOSE ISLAND.

To see beauty in things, even in words, simply because they FIT, is no small thing.

 

Anomaly

Years ago, I read a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that discusses black swan theory as it applies to financial markets and to historical events.

A black swan is an event that cannot be predicted from current or past conditions, has a significant impact, and, after the fact, is treated with a variety of rationalizations to explain it.

Last weekend, persuaded by the rainy weather, I decided to take on some serious cleaning projects; the kind that called for gloving up.

I looked under my kitchen sink, where I store my household cleaning supplies, and started pulling out yellow latex gloves, molded to fit either a right or left hand.

One by one, I found myself calling out Right…Right…Right. I had four or five right-handed gloves and absolutely NO left-handed gloves. (Believe me. I looked.)

How could this be? I bought the gloves in pairs. Maybe I lost one or two gloves from tears and they had to be thrown away.   But I couldn’t imagine the odds of having four pairs where early retirements were imposed for same hand.

Maybe this event is not significant and would not qualify as a black swan. Maybe this was just an anomaly –- but I felt compelled to try on different explanations.

I looked under the sinks in the bathrooms. I considered that gloves were separated from their mates as past household chores took my plastic bucket and diluted Pine Sol into other rooms.

I considered recent repair chores. Did I re-hinge any cabinet doors where I was more likely to get my left-hand glove caught on the hardware?

I couldn’t come up with a good explanation.

I started laughing.

OMG, I guess I’m not supposed to do any cleaning today.

Looking for excuses, this was the first thought crossed my mind.

I laid out the gloves and just looked at them. They looked so silly, like rubber chickens, stretched out next to each other.

Then I started thinking about how I would use what I had to do what I wanted to do.

I thought about doing my heavy scrubbing just with my right hand. I picked up each glove and examined them for flexibility. I looked at the possibility of wearing a right-handed glove on my left hand.

I filled my bucket a quarter way high and dropped in heavy splash of gold colored cleaner. I tried not to breathe in the fumes.

I thought about the surprise and the strangeness of the situation; how my first reaction was to look for explanations. Maybe I wanted to find a way to blame myself for the anomaly. Then I laughed at not being in control. Then I set my mind to thinking of ways to work with what had been given to me.

I probably spend too much time and energy, in all sorts of situations when something really unexpected occurs, mentally re-hashing how the situation evolved and ruminating on whether I should have done something differently.

I guess it’s human nature to seek out a certain level of predictability in life, to make plans, to seek out preferred outcomes.   A certain period of loss seems reasonable to indulge in. It takes a while to regain your bearings and get over things.

But it seems important not to be taken in, not to fall into whining or regret. It’s important to face the unexpected with humor and humility. It can be energizing to use anomalies or unexpected circumstances as motivation for invention or for adaptation.

Feeling the hot water as I wring out a sponge while wearing two right-handed gloves is no small thing.

Garden Off Edens

The Chicago Botanic Garden is not in Chicago. It is actually in a suburb called Glencoe, just off the Edens Expressway about twenty miles north.

Arranging a lunch date with a friend, who lives in a suburb close to the Wisconsin border, provided an excuse for making the garden a destination this past Friday afternoon.

They have a very nice cafeteria, six parking lots (which actually get full during summer months), and constantly changing natural beauty.

At the front of the visitors center, there is a What’s in bloom display and a large scale map of the nearly 400 acre garden. Although, there are plenty of maps and trail markers throughout, I usually just wander down the paths and focus on what’s in front of me (until I want to return to the parking lot).

Friday, when I visited, I read the What’s in Bloom cards that greeted me at the front of the building. If I couldn’t tell already from the colorful blooms I saw on the way from the Lake Cook Road entrance, after checking out the display, I knew to be prepared to see rhododendron, magnolias, and tulips.

“When did this happen?” I remember saying to myself earlier in the week as I was driving home via the Wilson Avenue Bridge.

It seems that my neighborhood came to life overnight. Last Saturday, things were subdued. By Thursday, I saw a broad palette of greens and pinks from budding trees. (Based on the name, who’d think a crabapple tree would be so beautiful?)

I felt like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, when she first opened the door of Auntie Em’s and Uncle Henry’s cabin, after her jarring trip and landing over the rainbow. Everything went from shades of gray to Technicolor. It seemed that the landscape and sense of life happening around me turned just as quickly.

I’ll often find things especially beautiful based on the surprise element. I’ll stop in amazement at the sight of a flower daring to break through the ground at a construction site or a child’s smile caught as I look at the car next to mine while stopped at a traffic light.

But visiting CBG was a different experience of beauty. Flowers and shrubs and trees are always beautiful but being able to walk for hours without the distractions of car horns or technology put me in a state of mind where I’m relaxed and can BE with everything.

I felt elevated. The recognition itself, that a garden is a special place, is beautiful. What came over me seemed inescapable in such a large wonderland of nature, but I think this is true of smaller gardens as well.

A garden doesn’t just happen. It has to be tended.

Over weeks, months, even years, someone thinks of how to use an outdoor space. Seeds are chosen and planted. Soil and rocks and fertilizer and planters may be bought. Someone spends time on their knees making sure the soil is soft and there are no weeds or other things that might challenge a plant.

From March through October, I’ll often see my building neighbor Paula on her knees with a spade in her hand.

I’m always delighted when I see the row of hostas between our building and the brick of the building next to ours. I love seeing the small trees she planted along the wire fence that provides a barrier to the Brown Line tracks just a few feet beyond my back deck.

I know she considers what types of plants need sunlight or shade before seeds are put in the ground. She always makes arrangements for Alisa or Grant or me to water everything when she goes out of town. I’ll take note of her many runs to Home Depot’s Garden Center.

And the Chicago Botanic Garden must have armies of Paulas; keeping their incredible collection of Bonsai trees trimmed and in proportion, keeping their lawns pristine, placing benches in the walled garden so that you can enjoy the trees and blooms in private while dozens of other visitors are doing the same, planning where to arrange different varieties of rose bushes so that when their time comes in June, you can’t help but be bowled over.

Having a special appreciation for a place where the finest expression of the natural world meets the care and stewardship of human beings is no small thing.

Summertime Pleasure: Some Assembly Required

Oooo Hooo – I got a tax refund this year. Not large enough to affect my retirement savings strategy, but big enough to underwrite some type of indulgence.

I decided to buy a gas grill for my back deck. I looked at different models online for ideas and asked friends, who are committed grillers, to weigh in on features and brands to check out.

I was tickled by the thought: a summertime of pleasure and a smoke-free kitchen. I also ‘fessed up to the personal attraction of warm weather dinners featuring a lime wedge topped gin and tonic and red meat.

I realized there was a nostalgic component to this yearning.

When I grew up, dinners usually consisted of some type of steak, a block of iceberg lettuce, and some flavor packet enhanced Birds Eye frozen vegetable medley. (That’s what Birds Eye called mixed vegetables.)

But Sunday dinners during the summer often saw my father drag our Weber charcoal kettle to a corner of our back yard that our family beagle hadn’t turned into his toilet. He used too much lighter fluid, but I looked forward to these meals.

Wearing Bermuda shorts and a Ban-Lon shirt (a synthetic knit which I think was invented to maximize the odor created by sweat), Buddha-bellied with surprisingly skinny legs, he seemed so happy wielding his barbecue tools; extra long spatula, two tined fork and tongs.

I visited the nearest Home Depot on Monday of last week and checked out the model that had been recommended to me. (Because it would be set up on a wooden deck instead of a cement patio, it had to be a gas grill).

But I couldn’t bring the grill home myself. Even if I contracted HD for delivery, they would only bring the box to the street level, front entrance of my building. I couldn’t navigate the huge box up the winding back stairs myself. I couldn’t imagine suffering through the assembly instructions solo.

Ah, a girl (of any age) needs a guy sometimes – to help lug the heavy things upstairs and to rotate the assembly diagram until the orientation pictured matches the way you’ve sprawled out the parts.

I fought the idea, but I asked my ex. I don’t want to depend on his help, and I don’t want him to feel taken advantage of.

But I asked and he agreed. We overcame the issue of the Spirit 210 box not fitting into my car (we took it apart in the Home Deport Parking lot and put the components and hardware in my backseat and trunk), a rubber washer cover rolling off the deck, and even the fact that the project took 30% longer than anticipated.

Nothing went extremely wrong, but not everything was easy. There were several moments when we could have started being less than kind to each other. But no blood was shed. No voices were raised.

By 4:00 in the afternoon, the grill was assembled and situated on the southeast corner of my second floor back deck. I heated up a frozen flatbread to snack on while he figured out how to use my limited set of screwdrivers to tighten all the screws and bolts that were provided. We listened to the ballgame on the radio.

The finished product delighted me. I was very appreciative of John’s help with the heavy lifting and assembly, and even for the short tutorial on turning on and off the gas.

I was also oddly happy with myself. It’s so easy when a relationship doesn’t turn out the way you expect or hope it would, to be disappointed, to rush to blame. But I figure that once you love someone, you love him – even if you can’t live together happily ever after.

When I decided to move out, it was important to me that we continued to be civil. I wanted both of us to feel okay about asking each other for help, or to feel free about swapping recommendations on new restaurants in the neighborhood.

We lead very separate lives, but I think both of us continue hold each other in regard.

Being able to grill a blue cheese burger only steps away from your dining table is great. Having a long-term perspective on relationships is no small thing.

 

Pocket Change

I don’t usually read the morning paper, but I had the urge to today. I have no work assignments and no obligations until this afternoon. The idea of sipping a cup of tea and slowly pouring over the paper was very appealing.

I could get nostalgic about the good ol’ days when newspaper boxes (vending machines), like shady trees, were planted on every other street corner. I won’t even go into the fact that either of the city’s major dailies could be purchased for only a quarter.

The price is now $1 and the nearest box is a couple blocks away. (The machine requires exact change.)

It’s still an easy destination. A pleasant walk. The hard part is finding four quarters.

Years ago, when I had to bundle up two weeks worth of laundry and haul it off to a Laundromat to do, I used to save quarters. I looked for excuses to pay cash for things hoping to build up a stockpile of silver that would keep the coin-op dryers spinning until my jeans were not damp.

But finding four quarters was no longer a slam-dunk, and I didn’t want to drive to a gas station or drugstore, where I could use bills, just to buy a paper.

I seemed to remember I had an empty cookie tin in which I had some quarters socked away. You know the kind, some sort of European butter cookie you can buy for almost nothing on closeout. I looked on the floor of my bedroom closet then on some shelves until I found the blue round tin.

It was dusty. I can’t remember the last time I looked for quarters.

Opening it was somehow like opening a treasure chest. I didn’t know what I’d find. I ceremoniously wiped off the dust before I pried off the lid.

Wow. Ten quarters and a few nickels and pennies. Around three dollars. Three dollars I had forgotten about, wealth I didn’t think I had.

I wasn’t exactly giddy, but I felt a rush of motivation to look for more change.

I checked the lining of my coat pockets. (I figured the coats had to go to the dry cleaner soon anyway.) I took out the contents of my purse and combed the lining and zipper compartments for coins.

I remember friends who used to save pennies or nickels in glass jars. When they finally took them to a bank — No, they weren’t able to go on vacation, but I remember once a friend cashed in $52 in pennies – enough to for a couple pizzas and a bottle of vino.

When I pulled my pocket change and purse change together, I realized I had about five dollars.

Just a few days ago, I was with friends playing a board game. We talked about different times in our lives when we were poor, when we felt poor; a little bit desperate and a little bit hopeless.

My friend Val shared that she remembered looking for fallen and forgotten change in her couch cushions. We all talked about odd things we did to earn extra money or how we found money in unexpected places.

As I counted my coins, I was happy about taking a little detour from my planned activities to perform a mental inventory of what change, what money, I had that I wasn’t accounting for. I came to an interesting conclusion:

You’re never poor (or as poor as you think you are) when you’re conscious of what you have.

Finding a cache of coins is no small thing.

Mud

It must have rained for two days straight. At times, the raindrops pelted down and I heard them, tinny-sounding, against my windows. Even when drops didn’t come down as discreet objects, a heavy mist permeated the air.

There wasn’t a sidewalk that didn’t terminate at the nearest street in a sort of lake and even walking to the parking pad behind my building involved planning where I planted each footstep so that my feet would not get soaked on the way to my car.

I hung an old gray towel in the entryway to my building, acknowledging that it would be necessary to clean India’s paws after returning from a walk.

Mud was everywhere.

I noticed how I became fascinated with this; how I looked for paw prints or patterned treads from boots in splashes of mud I’d encounter on the sidewalk.

I noticed that where small bites of earth had been pulled away from its core, exposed dirt became dry sooner than in places where larger craters had been scooped out.

I noticed discarded cans, candy wrappers, and small branches stuck in the mud. It seemed that people were much less apt to clear these things out of the way. An expedition to pick up incidental refuse would surely lead to messing up your shoes.

Mud is innocuous enough when you think about its composition. It’s just earth and water. But it carries it’s own unique danger. It marks anything that comes close. Upon contact, it defines what it touches. Things become muddy.

It’s a symbol, of sorts, of gluttony. When I see mud in abundance, I think about how a lawn or garden is trying to take in more water than it can swallow and absorb.

I told my friend Carol about my recent fixation and she remarked that according to Buddhist and Eastern traditions, it’s important to remember that mud is the environment where the lotus flower grows.

As I’ve been discouraged by many of the recent political and social trends, I’ve tried to keep in mind that a certain level of messiness is necessary for positive change to take place.

In my own creative process, I’ve recognized that sometimes ideas can seem very disconnected and raw before I can put them together in any way that approaches coherence (let alone the honesty and elegance I might strive for).

But this was a notion worth taking in –- that something as beautiful as the lotus flower grows in the mud. Like a baby chick cracking its shell from the inside, the implication is that there’s a certain amount of effort necessary for something so beautiful to be born.

Life itself is mud. There are things that are unavoidable. It’s messy. And the tension itself, the struggle involved in surviving and reaching out, on its own, creates a certain kind of beauty.

Just last week, I heard that someone I had worked with a few years ago died (of breast cancer). I learned that I would get a tax refund this year. One of my projects got postponed and I might not have income for a couple weeks. A friend comp-ed me with a ticket to the symphony. I was complimented and criticized.

Thupten Ngodrup, the State Oracle of Tibet, in sharing his thoughts on the lotus, said;

“The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. … The mud speaks of the common ground that humans share, no matter what our stations in life. … Whether we have it all or we have nothing, we are all faced with the same obstacles: sadness, loss, illness, dying and death. If we are to strive as human beings to gain more wisdom, more kindness and more compassion, we must have the intention to grow as a lotus and open each petal one by one.”

Celebrating MUD is no small thing.

 

Perspective

One day last week, while on errands, I made a stop at the local Jewel grocery store. I was probably driving a little too fast when I pulled into a parking spot in between a couple shopping cart corrals.

As I unbuckled my seat belt, my mind was fixated on remembering my plastic tote bags from the trunk. (The local stores started charging 7 cents a bag in February.)

Trying not to kiss the blue metal station wagon door next to my car with my own car door, I looked up and saw a large dog with a cone around his head hanging out of the open back seat window.

I started laughing then I felt a well of empathy rising inside of me.

The sight of a dog looking so human because of his circumstances was funny. In that moment, I also felt surprisingly gifted with an image that could serve as a trigger for PERSPECTIVE.

I generally think of gratitude in terms of experiences that make feel connected to things I love or value. I don’t like to think about gratitude as a game of comparisons.

For instance, I don’t believe it serves parents to tell their kids how lucky they are because they are not working in a sweatshop in Malaysia. I believe there are so many things to be grateful about in your actual experience that you don’t need to muster up the feeling by reminding yourself that someone has it worse.

But at that moment, while I was opening my car door and saw this slightly bewildered, slightly bored gentle giant of a dog, I felt very fortunate.   I thought It must be awful to be locked up in the back seat of a car unable to scratch your head!

Wow, the image gave me plenty of perspective. In the scheme of things, not having the basic freedom of mobility and not understanding why seems like a incredibly disheartening experience.

The expression on the dog’s face said it all. It was funny because I could imagine it being worn on a middle-aged man or woman. The dog was somehow more than human. His feelings were so real and transparent.

I also smiled in the moment because the sight was unexpected.

I guess the words human, humor, and humility are connected.

I thought about the many times in my life when I would make a slightly dark observation or twist a phrase into something close to it’s intended meaning but make it much more memorable because it didn’t fit in a typical way.

That impulse has helped me find perspective. Laughing or appreciating the irony of a situation has helped me detach and not feel like a victim.

To me, something can be funny simply because it is unexpected. I get a lot of pleasure from hearing in the flow remarks in the course of an unscripted conversation.

Humility is often triggered in a similar way.

When I realize I can’t will someone to return a text to me any faster or can’t dictate the weather.… lot’s of things remind me that I can’t control everything. Rather than be upset, I recognize how these experiences create or sort of gateway for perspective.

I face my share of disappointments. They are real and deserve to be recognized. But, in general, I love to be surprised.

Those surprising sights and remarks are often funny. Being thrown off kilter can remind you of the vulnerability you share with EVERY HUMAN BEING (and dogs too).

Smiling while feeling empathy for a cone-protected Fido, locked in the backseat of a station wagon, is no small thing.

 

Little Black dress

On most Sunday mornings, I go to a meditation center. It’s nice to take time to go inside yourself among other people who are doing the same.

Although there is no formal dress code, it feels appropriate to dress modestly and comfortably. In other words, long skirts serve the purpose well. It seems that I have a few suitable Sunday outfits for summer but not for these transitional months.

Not one to make a sport or pastime out of shopping, recently, I decided to check out some places for a long skirt that I could wear on Sunday.

I went to The Village in my old neighborhood, my favorite resale shop. It was a Green Dot Weekend (with special discounts on items marked with a colored sticker), and it was very crowded. I didn’t stay long.

Then I went to a couple strip malls on steroids. Anchored by a major discount retailer but not as big and overwhelming as a suburban shopping center, I checked out the racks at Marshall’s.

Slim pickings, for sure; a mish mosh of new spring arrivals, warm-weather vacation getaway tops and winter items tagged for clearance.

A deal is a deal, right? After a few tours of different sections within the store, I realized that there were no long skirts to try on.

I began looking at spring tops and winter items that had been marked down. When shopping for clothes, I often employ the same strategy as I do when wine shopping. I look at the original retail price then at the discount price. I tend to look more seriously at buys that represent a good value.

When I started thumbing through the clearance items, I came across a cotton-knit black dress with three quarter sleeves. It had a high scoop neck. Except for a little flare at the bottom, it was pretty simple – well, it was plain.

OMG. $23.99

I gathered it, along with a few name brand tops and headed to the fitting room. I probably was juggling 6 hangers, just barely making the limit I could take into the fitting room at one time.

When I stopped looking for a particular thing, I SAW SO MANY THINGS THAT I WASN’T LOOKING FOR – things that maybe suited me in surprising ways.

I put a patterned long-sleeve tee and a highly reduced sheer Calvin Klein top in my TO KEEP pile.

Then I tried on the dress. It was so simple, and pretty much out of season. But it was a classic. With my natural curves and a scarf or jewelry, I could see pulling it from my closet for many occasions.

I don’t think I ever had a little black dress before, a go-to dress, and I was very happy about MY FIND.

I thought about the mental state I brought to the day’s shopping. It seemed that having a relaxed awareness rather than a single-minded focus was the key. I’m appreciative when I can slip into that space.

That I found a perfect little black dress (for $23.99, no less) is no small thing. (Okay, if I could find fashion forward shoes that don’t hurt my feet – that would be a miracle!)

The Third Bottle

I hosted book group this past Thursday.

Every 6 weeks or so, a group of my girlfriends get together to discuss a novel. Whoever picks out our book hosts the gathering and provides something to eat and yes, there’s wine (We’re girlfriends, aren’t we?).

The book I chose was a novel about a young woman with anorexia -– told from her lover’s point of view.

I made a hearty meal of daube Provencal (beef stew with, yes, more wine), a pear-gorgonzola salad, mini pastries, and freshly baked crescent rolls. Perversity rules! I wanted to enjoy simple pleasures that our book’s heroine wouldn’t allow herself.

Our group consists of four women. Occasionally, a guest will show up. Core members will often invite friends who appreciate reading and de-constructing but are reluctant to commit to showing up for every meeting.

I asked our friend, Shari, to join us. Member of another book discussion group some of us were in over 20 years ago, she had to drop out when family, moving to Munster, Indiana (40 miles away), and grad school came to demand more of her time.

Via brief emails, she warned me that she would be coming late, as she was teaching a class, but was looking forward to coming.

I opened up our first bottle of red to pour a cup into the Le Creuset enamel pot that was magically transforming cubes of everyday chuck into something special. It was a large bottle and lasted through dinner and our initial comments about the novel.

At about 7:30, when we were raising our voices about choices the author made, little things we liked about minor characters, when we thought elements were introduced in a sort of contrived way, Shari arrived. We quickly got her caught up.

A bowl of stew was filled for her, a glass of wine was poured, and everybody contributed a sentence to convey an idea that was already aired.

Shari quickly jumped in, throwing in her own comments about teaching foreign students (an experience she shared with the narrator), body image, and relationships.

We took turns, following trails of colored Post-It Notes, reading marked passages out loud.

We opened up our second bottle. In between remarks on control, intimacy, grief, illness, differences between sexes, and narrative voice, Shari declared how much she missed this kind of process and camaraderie.

When the formal discussion was over, we discussed who would host the next gathering and my lady friends started to leave.

Shari pulled out her cell phone and texted her boyfriend to come and pick her up; to leave the bar where he was killing time and actually come to my home. He picked her up from the class she was teaching and drove her to my door.

On his way over, the third bottle was opened. Shari and I talked about her children, about her teaching career, about the death of her husband four years ago, and about her new boyfriend. She confided that some of her old friends were not comfortable with him, or not comfortable with the idea of her having a new partner.

We talked about some of her challenges; going to school, raising teenagers on a modest income as a single parent, how she began seeing partnership potential with the man who would join us shortly.

We talked about some of my issues with sleep and balance, my impulse to write and my need to generate income another way.

I hadn’t talked with her in so long and, more than getting updated, it was great to be in such a non-judgmental presence.

Always uncommon, I remember her circus themed wedding that included jugglers and elephant rides, which took place in the parking lot of a forest preserve. She never worried about what others might see as odd or a contradiction.

Established as a Christian artist, she always displayed very liberal attitudes about exercising personal freedom. I would not normally see these things as going together, but they were very natural and honest expressions for her. She made no apologies about either.

A few minutes earlier, as our book discussion was drawing to a close, she reached into her purse and pulled out a salami from Hickory Farms to give to me. Not requiring refrigeration, it was in a layer of heavy-duty plastic skin, making it easy to pull off a grocery store shelf.

When it was presented to me, she laughed. We both laughed. I knew she wouldn’t be hurt if I didn’t want the cased sausage, but I understood her impulse never to go anywhere empty-handed.

After her boyfriend joined us, while we talked about hockey, her parents, and their upcoming vacation, she decided to gift me with tiny vials of essential oils, which made the trip from Indiana in her purse as well, probably next to salami. She had recently become a fan, using them for relaxation and mental clarity.

Generosity, transparency, self-acceptance, curiosity and resourcefulness, a great tenacity for solving problems tempered by respect for the mysterious, for the unknowable – Shari embodies all these things.

I think she provides a mirror for me. I can see some things in her that I can see in myself, and I can see some aspects of her character that I would like to shine through me more.

Getting to the third bottle (even if no wine is consumed), a place of complete honesty and vulnerability, is no small thing.

 

Art To Go

Many times, I’ve joked about a woman’s purse being one of the great mysteries of life.

Whether approaching the size of a trunk, or just a clutch, it’s always amazed me how some women can pull out just what’s needed at a particular time. That might be a safety pin or atomizer of pepper spray.

Okay, sometimes, it takes me a while to locate my key ring, but I know it’s in there, and I have an odd confidence that if I shake things up, eventually, I will hear their jingle jangle and be able to open the door in front of me.

The other day, I was fumbling around my purse, a medium sized black leather bag with a few zipper compartments. I was probably looking for a pen or for coins to satisfy my urge to offer exact change somewhere.

Instead, I came across my business cardholder. I bought it at the gift shop at the Mexican Fine Arts Museum this past November. The top of the thin metal enclosure bore a painted enamel scene of sombrero crowned hombre skeletons dancing with skirted senorita skeletons – a Day of the Dead celebration.

Since I don’t often hand out my business card, it’s an easy object to forget about. But feeling it in my hand, then taking it out of my purse and looking at it – I couldn’t help but smile.

I thought about the hours I spent with a few girlfriends at the museum, how we were moved by the many alters on display (ofrendas), how pleased I was that I introduced them to something new that they enjoyed. The cardholder was a nice keepsake of the day.

I’m not normally a big shopper. I don’t buy something just because I’ve never bought something like it before or because I’ve never bought something somewhere before.

I love beautiful objects and I understand that fashion, along with being a way to make a personal statement, is an art form. I don’t pay much attention to fashion, though. Designers are very creative people, but I tend to be more interested in what’s lasting over what is trending.

Besides, being fashionable can often represent an outlay of cash I would prefer to direct towards other things.

But I really loved this object I re-discovered at the bottom of my handbag.

I liked that it reflected a day spent at an art museum. I liked thinking that it was made, if not by an artisan, by a small shop. I liked thinking of supporting their business along with the museum’s gift shop.

I liked that the image was whimsical and that the object itself was functional. I felt it was good to have a case that protected my cards.

I liked that the image, to me, represented learning about another culture. I didn’t know what Day of the Dead was until maybe 10 years ago.

I confess I liked thinking that I had something that was unique. I couldn’t imagine going to a networking event and seeing anyone else pull out their business cards in a metal case with a rendering, in a recognized style, of skeletons dancing.

So, I had a small object — ART TO GO — that I could take with me anywhere. It was finely crafted and it represented things that were personally meaningful to me. I know I can take this cardholder out of my purse anytime and it will make me smile.

That this object is as close to me, and as easy to access, as my drivers license is no small thing.

Supersize Me

I’m not usually one to espouse the bigger is always better philosophy.

I prefer shopping at Harvestime over Costco. (I’m definitely not tempted by the idea of saving two dollars by buying 30 rolls of TP only to create a storage problem.)

I would much rather drive to a destination in sedan than an SUV no matter how many cup holders and electronic device adapters it has. I would sooner go to hear jazz in a little club than go to a stadium event where you’re lucky to see the stage (and probably have to wait in a line to pee).

I don’t know why I succumbed to the allure of a promotional mailing I got in my in email box last week, but it became high on this past weekend’s list of errands. It was for $5 off a gi-normous bag of dry dog food.

In the brand I buy, there’s a 4-pound bag and a 24-pound bag. The 24-pound bag already costs much less per ounce than the same product in a smaller package, but buying bulk is not an automatic decision for me.

I hate the thought of lugging this heavy-duty, handle-less sack that’s always changing shape up the two flights of my winding back stairs then over my kitchen threshold.

I also don’t like the idea of paying for something in advance of getting pleasure out of the purchase.

I don’t like when the Illinois Tollway wants me to prepay $40 for tolls I don’t need often. (I don’t commute to work.) Even my subscription to the symphony -– I’m very glad when I enjoy a performance, but I bristle a little bit when I have to shell out cash in June for shows I won’t see until the following April.

When shopping for myself, I worry about waste. Yes, the giant tub of yogurt costs much less per serving than the small package, but I hate pouring food down the drain or into the garbage because I can’t consume something before it becomes a science project.

I realized that I might need to look at this in an expanded way; to let go of some hard and fast rules.

I’m apprehensive about habits that encourage gluttony. If I buy more of something I use, I’m more apt to over-indulge. I’ll fill my plate at a buffet-style restaurant if only to get my money’s worth.

But I don’t want to be miserly with myself. I don’t want to get myself thinking in terms of scarcity. I don’t want to think that things need to be measured out in very deliberate portions, whatever constitutes just enough.

I know what it’s like to open my refrigerator door and see only a carton of eggs, a block of cheese, and a bottle of ketchup.

I remember when I was about to go on an extended vacation in October. I was worried about my dog’s anxiety about being abandoned (which, as a rescue pup, she’s experienced at least once). I had a conversation with a pet communicator a week before my trip.

I had her explain to India how I will be gone for 12 days, but that she shouldn’t be worried because I would come back. I wanted to let India know that I made arrangements for a friend to stay at my home. I wanted to assure her that her daily schedule shouldn’t change.

The pet communicator reported India’s response; that my friend was okay but that she would miss me. Then India asked if there would be enough food in my absence for them both.

I laughed thinking about this because it would be so like India to wonder where her next meal would come from, but I also saw it as a lesson for me – to be FLEXIBLE, not to feel bound by past decisions or rules of habit.

It was okay to SUPERSIZE my dog food purchase.

More is not always better, but not being miserly with myself is important too. I need to remember I don’t have to follow one rule.

There may be times when lugging a big bag up my stairs causes me more anxiety than the cost savings is worth. And I need to honor that feeling. But spending less money over a period of time, having ENOUGH for LONGER, has its attractions.

I need to honor my dominant feeling.

Having a whole season of kibbles in ready supply for your favorite pooch is no small thing.

 

Private Audience

Ah February. Although the calendar page will tell you it’s the shortest month, it can feel like the longest.

Yes, there’s the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, and, if you’re really hard up for an occasion, many people like to make a ritual observation out of the groundhog’s comings and goings. It’s a short stretch of four weeks that feels like an eternity.

For me, February is no different than every other month. I might make a pot o’ jambalaya for Fat Tuesday, but my daily life is pretty much the same as it is in September or June.

I enjoy watching the pro sports of the season on TV. I’ll pick up a book to read, and I’ll take walks with my dog.

I’m always on the lookout to fulfill one of my personal lifestyle goals — to see live music a couple times a month. When going to an outdoor concert is not an option, and I don’t want to hang out in a bar, this can be more challenging.

On the east side of Francisco, there’s an adorable collection of storefronts. It includes a dry cleaner, a beauty parlor, a neighborhood attorney’s office, the First Slice bakery and café, Le Petit Ballet Studio and Narloch Piano Studio, where private lessons are given.

A few weeks ago, as I was walking India, I looked at a couple handmade posters in the window of the piano studio. They were advertising a Friday night recital. It featured a youngish performer with an impressive resume. It was planned to be just over one hour and only cost $15.00.

The poster mentioned the composer and pieces slated for the upcoming Friday performance. Bach’s Italian Concerto, Beethoven’s Pathetique, and something by Schumann. Right away, I knew I had to go.

I asked a few friends to join me but was happy enough to go alone. The studio was only a five-minute walk from my home.

A small standing sign was placed in front of the studio. SHOW TONIGHT. At only fifteen minutes to show time, I seemed to be the first to arrive. There were cookies placed on a table at the back of the studio for after the show.

I liked looking at the walls. They were decorated like a bulletin board outside of a principal’s office in an elementary school. There were colored marker drawings of Mozart and Bartok and other composers with fun historical facts about their lives, contributed, I assume by young students.

The owner of the studio and the soloist, an attractive twenty-something year old- woman, sat in the back. There were maybe 25 or 30 chairs set up in a few rows and along the wall leading to the door.

The soloist wore gloves to keep her hands warm. A shiny black grand piano occupied the front of the studio.

At 7:55, the place just filled up. Local music lovers ended up occupying almost the exact number of chairs that were set out.

I had never been to a performance at the studio before, but it was clear that the other concertgoers knew the drill. A small metal cash box was placed near the front door. Everyone handled their monetary transaction themselves.

The soloist was very good. Each piece was memorized and a lot of attention was given to dynamics, to the subtle and grander changes in volume and mood.

I loved the music, but I really loved experiencing the music in this venue.

It was INTIMATE. And isn’t that what classical music is about? In a very small room, on a beautiful instrument, the nuances of each composition and the soloist’s personal rendering of them, felt like they were emanating from inside of me.

I got to see my neighbors’ faces. Even though I didn’t recognize anyone, I liked knowing that people living only blocks away from me would come to a local piano studio on a Friday night. I got to thank the performer personally for a great performance.

I really found the whole evening especially beautiful. It was so quiet in the room. The sound of the piano was the only thing that was audible.

I couldn’t hear the sounds of candy wrappers or rustling programs or latecomers taking their seats. I could only hear notes from the piano…and the silence in between the notes.

Hearing the silence between the notes is no small thing.

Special Events

People have different notions of what constitutes a special event.

There are birthdays and anniversaries; comeback tours of aging rock stars we grew up with (compelling you to buy a keepsake tee).

Many people celebrate Valentine’s Day this week. And recently, business pundits and various news sources made a small fuss about the Dow Jones average going over 20,000.

Generally, we think of special events through a very personal lens. Something is SPECIAL mostly because of its personal significance to YOU.

But what about special events for the EARTH? For the universe?

Friday night, at around 9:00 in the evening, as I walked through nearby Ravenswood Manor Park, I looked up at the moon.

I heard that a snow moon was going to be in the night sky and that a lunar eclipse was going to take place.

Yesterday, I looked up the date in the Farmers Almanac. The date was tagged to host a full Snow Moon (name originating from Native Americans reference to the time of year with heaviest snows), a penumbral eclipse (which takes place in the moon orbit’s outer shadow), and the closest passing of Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková in a generation.

Trifecta! Talk about special! A penumbral eclipse will only occur five times this century.

I’m of two different minds when it comes to thinking of an experience as SPECIAL.

Part of me thinks that fully appreciating what is happening in the moment is the feeling you aspire to when experiencing a special event. Looking down from an overpass and marveling at how traffic flows or noticing where birds like to rest can fill me with an unexpected sort of contentment.

In other words, I don’t need for a rare event to take place to have this feeling.

On the other hand, I like to attach significance to things. I like to make things personal.

I really enjoyed walking around Ravenswood Manor Park Friday night before the sky clouded up. I wasn’t able to see the eclipse or the comet that night, but the MOON was MAGNIFICENT!

I liked knowing that it was an event of some historic significance. I liked that my curiosity was aroused and I followed up by trying to learn more.

But I mostly liked walking under the moon. I liked thinking that it is always there. It doesn’t change, but how it is seen changes.

I liked thinking that it has been a guide to give people direction at night forever. I like that is in relationship with the tide – with the flow of water, with the flow of life even though it is nowhere near an ocean.

I liked thinking that it has inspired many songs and poems. It symbolizes many things for me; the shadow side of things – contrast, in general; how important it is to see something while considering what it is not.

So walking under the full moon Friday night was special — from the universe’s perspective and from mine.

It was unusual to have three astronomical events happen at the same time. And the vision of the moon — its fullness, the glow, the subtle ring that seemed to embrace it — made me feel indescribably happy.

Feeling connected to EVERYTHING, while taking one step at a time, is no small thing.

Blue Skies

OMG

When I headed out to walk India the other morning, I was amazed by the blueness of the sky.

Chicago is not known for its sunny days, but sometimes, you don’t realize how wonderful something is – until you miss it.

Even though this winter has not been unduly harsh in temperature, after a chain of overcast days, I couldn’t help but notice how different my mood was when I felt directly connected to the sun, under a cover of blue. A few wisps of clouds only added to the blessing by establishing a little contrast.

I felt more energetic and optimistic. I found myself more willing to be spontaneous and adventurous. I seemed content to be alone, less eager for the distraction of a television or computer screen.

Even if I didn’t want to be outside, I didn’t want to lose sight of the amazing blue sky.

I think other people felt the same way.

In short interactions with store clerks or crossing guards or doormen – they all seemed especially upbeat and helpful.

It’s not just the sunshine that people respond to. I’m convinced that it’s the color blue itself. Indigo, periwinkle , cobalt, sapphire -– there are mane shades of blue in the spectrum. Everyone knows what SKY BLUE looks like.

I noodled around online for qualities and psychological associations with the color.

Peace

Calm

Clarity

Relaxation

Intelleigence

Warmth

Compassion

Idealism

Spirituality

Sincerity

Flexibility

Imagination

 

It has been said that the color represents confidence, in a non-threatening way, as in CALM AUTHORITY

The color is also associated with safety and trust.

It is universally liked. There are people whose favorite color might be red or green and other people who might be just as passionate in their dislike, but no one hates blue. It is universally liked.

I tried to understand the effect of the blue sky on my own mood and outlook. I had to think about horizons; how when you look out at a body of water, the blueness of the ocean merges with the sky. Or, if you see a mountain, the only thing bigger is the sky over it.

When I see blue, I think FOREVER. INFINITY. Rather than being overwhelmed by this, I feel comforted.

I have to refer to the classic tune. (Thanks, Mr. Berlin)

Blue skies smilin’ at me
Nothing but blue skies, do I see
Blue days all of them gone
Nothin’ but blue skies from now on…

Being buoyed by the vastness, the FOREVER-NESS of the sky is no small thing.

 

Radio Days

Saturday, I ran a bunch of errands. I’d like to take credit for the efficiency at which I executed them, but I almost seemed to be on autopilot. As I drove west, I seemed to be programmed to turn into a driveway every ¼ mile or so.

I put gas in my car. I bought a new bath rug at Bed, Bath & Beyond (and even remembered to take one of their coupons with me). I stopped at Pet Supplies and bought a multi-week supply of kibbles for India. I stopped at Harvestime and stocked up on produce and other essentials.

I almost get tired now thinking about my route.

And in between all my stops, I flicked the car radio on. I confess that turning the radio on as soon as I get behind the wheel is almost as automatic as buckling up.

I listened to a few favorite shows on NPR.

Between the Mobil on Crawford and the strip mall where I bought discount salon shampoo and checked out bathroom rugs, I caught the end of Moth Radio, a re-broadcast of live storytelling events that are held in cities across the country.

A featured story was delivered by a thirty-something, recounting how, as a young landlord, he discovered a renter that he decided he had to let go taking the refrigerator with him. Very funny and very real.

Before I hit the grocery store I listened to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Recorded here in Chicago most Saturday mornings, host Peter Sagal tests minor celebrities on some arcane bit of cultural trivia. This past Saturday, his guests, who recently released the hip-hop album, Run the Jewels, were asked questions about rabbis. (A twisted play on Running the Jews…)

LOL.

I caught some music from a bygone era on XRT’s Saturday Morning Flashback, where all selections come from a particular year, and I found myself totally entranced by a Ted Talks show, which focused on our culture’s relationship with screens and how they’re changing our lives.

I remember leaving the car’s engine on, sitting in my car and listening to the segment for several minutes after I arrived at my destination.

I might be very old school, but I really like listening to THE RADIO.

I like the intimacy of it. No matter what goes into production, I focus on the human voice. I feel like I’ve come to know DJs on favorite stations. They feel like friends.

I like the live nature of it. I know that each song or interview is planned, but it feels like it is coming to me fresh.

Just like I prefer perusing a printed newspaper instead of pre-selecting online stories, I like listening to radio the same way. I welcome the possibility of being introduced to something I might find especially compelling that I didn’t know to look for.

I like the randomness of music that might flow to me instead of compiling a playlist. Perhaps a memory will be more vivid to me at some point in the future because I’ll associate an event or experience with the unexpected tune I noticed playing on the radio at the time.

In a world of controlled and documented events, I like to be SURPRISED.

Spending a day with the ever-new and oh so familiar companionship of the radio is no small thing.

 

Participation

I got to the el station to head downtown to join the rally and march before 9:00 AM. It was easy to spot others with the same destination.

Quite a few wore pink knit “pussy” hats. Many of them carried signs.

I joked with a few ladies while we waited for the next train.

“I couldn’t bear to watch the TV during the inauguration yesterday,” I confessed. “I had root canal done.”

The information was true enough. I spent a good part of the previous morning with an endodontic specialist. The implication in my statement, though, was that I would rather have painful dental work than see the man I’ve come to refer to as the NIC (Narcissist In Chief) put his hand on Lincoln’s bible and take the oath of office.

The train car was filled to capacity within two stops of where I got on, and I am only 3 stops form the end of the line. There were young women and old hippies, gangs of gal pals and feminists of all sexes. Quite a few families made a special outing out of the occasion.

The crowds on the street were huge.   After I got home later in the day, I Googled crowd estimates. Maybe 250,000 showed up for the Women’s March in Chicago on an unseasonably warm January afternoon.

Through my post-march web surfing, I took note that there were over 150 marches around the world. People in London, Paris, Madrid, Sydney, New Delhi, and Manila (among other locations) marched in solidarity.

Led by the idea that women’s rights are synonymous with human rights, other causes seemed to align perfectly. Everything comes down to mutual respect and kindness, doesn’t it?

Along with throngs of people disembarking from trains, buses and cars, I was guided to a bridge (on Van Buren or Balbo) because there was no more room at the publicized staging area. Here, we waited until the foot traffic (the marchers) started moving.

We couldn’t hear any of the speeches from where we were…but we smiled at each other. We were glad we came.

After 90 minutes of watching the crowd expand like lungs filling up with fresh air, we started moving along a planned route. The marching route was supposed to end with a rally at the federal plaza, but this had to be canceled.  The crowd was too large to assemble there.

Very deliberately and peaceably we started to go west where we made a right turn at Wabash Avenue. A loud rhythmic chant seemed to rise up spontaneously, not amplified but very strong.

NO HATE. NO FEAR. EVERYONE IS WELCOME HERE. As we marched north, it was hard not to notice Trump Tower in the distance.

Under the shadow of the el train, just beginning to realize how large a group we were, we broke into THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE. Our voices drowned out the sound of trains rumbling overhead.

Everyone had their cellphones out to snap pictures of the signs. We all wanted to remember this personally inspiring and historic day.

Looking at all the signs felt like getting to know everyone as individuals.

Some signs were philosophical, proclaiming WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS and QUALITY MEN WANT EQUALITY FOR WOMEN, or THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.

Other signs reflected the intergenerational aspect of the experience. Young girls, who probably hadn’t yet mastered large-scale printing, held up hand-drawn pictures of roaring grizzly bears, in homage to Helen Reddy’s classic song, “I Am Woman. Hear me Roar.

I came across a ten-year old boy, carrying a dark sign, lettered in gold marker. I AM MARCHING FOR MY MOTHER. (MY BABY SITTER, I’M NOT TOO CRAZY ABOUT).

Some slogans were tongue in cheek and political. Riffing off the THANKS OBAMA video which went viral showing Obama unable to dunk a large cookie in a narrow glass of milk, a visual metaphor for how he was often blamed for anything that was wrong, even things out of his scope, I saw a THANKS PUTIN sign.

Eerily representing the state of news reporting, referring to the size of the crowd, another sign read FOX NEWS WILL LIE ABOUT THIS.

Many signs expressed a more personal pain. One read WHY DON’T MORE RAPE VICTIMS REPORT THEIR EXPERIENCE? 20 DID AND THE MAN ACCUSED BECAME PRESIDENT.

Whether on the ground marching alongside of each other or from above – We were beautiful!

Making a quick stop at Walgreens to buy poster board and a Sharpie to express yourself before meeting up with 250,000 other souls who want to show up in the world is no small thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ninth Candle

I really enjoy visiting my Orthodox Jewish friends during the holidays. I refer to my parents as Lox ‘n’ Bagel Jews because, for them, practicing Judaism revolved around attending secular humanist lectures at our temple and eating foods favored by other Members of the Tribe.

It feels fresh and especially sweet to me to take part in Jewish traditions that are carried out with great heart and respect.

Just a few weeks ago, I was a dinner guest at my friend’s Hanukah (or do you say Chanukka?) celebration. Each guest was allowed to light their own menorah. The latkes were homemade (not from Trader Joe’s) and philosophical repartee was flowing.

I’m so appreciative of how my hosts welcome friends into their home; how they encourage me to take part in the rituals without making me feel stupid or ashamed because I don’t speak Hebrew and am only loosely familiar with the prayers.

I loved watching the candles’ flames from my menorah blazing alongside of the lights from other menorahs.

When there was a break in the eating (Did I mention the hostess made jelly-filled donuts?), our table leader asked everyone if we would weigh in on our understanding of the significance of the holiday.

After invoking a favorite explanation from Austrian Jewish actor Theodore Bickel (“We won. They lost. Let’s eat!”), we went around the room contributing our own commentary on the significance of the historical events that spawned the celebration.

After sharing what we all learned in Sunday school, about how the a small band of Israeli soldiers, the Maccabees (think Special Forces), beat a larger and much better resourced army and how a small supply of oil that was meant to provide light for one day actually lasted for eight days, the host proposed that the primary theme of the holiday was little vs. big.

This compelled many around the table to draw parallels to the continued position of Israel, a country trying to survive in a world of much bigger Arab states. Many guests not only saw Israel as Little in a world of Big, they declared Israel to be GOOD amid a sea of EVIL

Some guests strongly condemned the US for not supporting Israel’s policy of building new developments in a geography, which could turn into a home for Palestinians.

A few guests, including me, were taken aback by how this celebration turned into a political forum.

One guest brought up that she was uncomfortable that dinner table talk turned in this direction. She also pointed out that we need to remember multiple sides to the situation, how the Palestinians have also occupied this space for many years and how important having a home is to them, something Israelis should certainly understand.

Before I left my friends’ house, I thanked the host for inviting me and expressed how moved I was by seeing the flames of the many menorahs. I thought about how, together, they formed one great light. I wanted the ritual of lighting one more flame each night to go on forever. I remember saying something about wanting to be the 9th candle.

In another nod to the theme of big and little, I was drawn to think about distinctions in size; how to any one individual, degree is not so important. I want to remember not to stop acting from my heart because I’m locked in to the idea that my actions alone are not significant.

I want to act from my heart in all things. My declaration came from wanting to add light in the world, no matter the amount.

In the following days, I kept thinking about big and little and how upset I was by the discussion turning political

It’s almost reflexive that a group of people, especially one with a history such as the Jews, would see the world as us vs. them. It’s understandable to be concerned with survival of your heritage.

I also think that everyone is being called on now to be BIGGER than they might have been in the past; to remember what we all have in common and think less in terms of us vs. them.

Don’t we all want our families to have a home?  Don’t we all want to pursue our individual talents and feel secure that we can enjoy the fruits of our labor?

I hope that Jews and non-Jews can move towards identifying with their BIGGER selves and with the whole of humanity.

Being able to celebrate your traditions and culture but not letting history confine you is no small thing.

White Christmas

Some families make a yearly ritual out of dragging home a Frazier Fir from a parking lot/temporary nursery. Many mother-daughter duos go into a cookie baking frenzy that would put Pepperidge Farm to shame.

My annual Christmas tradition involves going to the Music Box Theatre for their annual Christmas show.

For two weeks leading up to the 25th, they offer a double feature consisting of Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life and the very camp musical, White Christmas starring crooner Big Crosby and childhood favorite funnyman, Danny Kaye.

Anchored by a sing-along with Santa and house organist, even a Grinch couldn’t help but break into a smile. I usually skip It’s a Wonderful Life (content to view one of its many airings on TV) and come out with a group of friends for White Christmas (and the sing-along).

I’ve been observing this tradition for around fifteen years.

I’m always amazed by how tiny Vera Ellen’s waist is, shown off in many of the dance numbers. I think about Rosemary Clooney’s connection to heart throb George Clooney. I never fail to laugh at the line housekeeper Emma says in reference to her job for Major General Tom Waverly; that she alone could do the job previously performed by 15,000 men -– even though I’ve heard the line dozens of times.

Going to the Music Box for White Christmas…It’s so familiar. I know almost every line. But it’s never boring.

I like to introduce new people to this cherished tradition.  It helps keep the tradition fresh.

My friend Holly fist introduced me to White Christmas at the Music Box years ago. We now wear our red Santa hats or reindeer headbands and try to invite another friend who has never been before.

Over the years, I’ve brought along, Susan C. and Nancy R. and Sandy and Rob and others. My pleasure seems to be enhanced by thinking that my friends are having a memorable first time experience.

During some of the musical numbers or audience participation parts (like when an over-served audience member makes a ba-a-a-ah bleating sound during the Crosby-Clooney lyric “When I’m worried and cannot sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep…”), I’ll catch myself looking down the row to catch the expression of the White Christmas newbie I brought.

I try to remember my own first time.

I want them to love the tradition as much as I do. It’s not just about the movie, which features great songs and dances and the wonderful irony of a nice Jewish boy from New York, Irving Berlin, creating one of most beloved Christmas songs. It’s about being in a large auditorium where EVERYONE is practicing their own family ritual within a bigger one.

I can make out groups of people who BELONG to each other. Groups of individuals will be dressed as elves, or WWII soldiers, or reindeer, or decked out in some costume from the movie.

And doesn’t that reflect a bigger story; that within our tribe, we belong to a larger family?

We all know the lyrics to fuller or lesser degrees. We all forget lines and can’t get others out of our heads.

After having such a good time, many of us will think about who we can invite next year.

Sharing a tradition with your peeps and inviting new people to share something you love in the company of others doing the same is no small thing.

 

Midnight Circus

midnight-circusLight and fluffy snowflakes are coming down. I hear the sound of my neighbor running a shovel blade across the walk. I have food in the fridge and nowhere I have to be.

Here, at home, life seems very peaceful. Inside the snow globe, the movements of the world seem like MAGIC.

At this time of year, TV commercials show new luxury cars tied up in red bows sitting on suburban driveways, sending sparks of glee to the lucky family who unties the ribbon and enjoys keyless entry and the envy of their neighbors (at low monthly rates).

This image is supposed to convey the MAGIC of the season.

But I have another recent memory of magic, one that is far simpler and feels far truer.

Back in October, I went to see The Midnight Circus, at nearby Welles Park. During the summer months, The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre stages productions of the Bard’s works in neighborhood parks.

During September and October, The Midnight Circus sets up its tent, and parks its popcorn machine in many of the same parks.

I had no recent experience of going to the circus. I remember when I was around four, my father pulled some strings to get front row seats to the Ringling Brothers Circus.

My sister, who was only one year older, and I got upset and scared by the humongous elephants. And when the clowns (face it, clowns are pretty scary) pulled a stunt where they pretended to set their hair on fire — well, we screamed so loudly, that our poor father had to take us home.

The Midnight Circus was a much tamer affair. The largest animals they had were dogs no bigger than a Cocker Doodle. There was a high wire act, but the wire was about as high as a basketball net.

The circus troop consisted all of young people, spanning in age from ten to twenty-five. Mostly acrobats and jugglers, they wore tight fitting and colorful outfits and moved with energy and grace.

There was no balding middle-aged ringmaster in a top hat and red jacket with gold epaulets. And thankfully, there were no scary clowns.

A very eclectic range of music was amplified and, except for one intermission, there was no stoppage. I watched a constant flow of acts.

A young girl dangled from the top of the tent on a large swatch of purple cloth, arranging her Gumby doll-like body into configurations I didn’t think possible.

A teenage couple leapt and danced across a wire, stepping through hoops and tossing each other different objects from opposite ends.

There were comical chase scenes and dancing segments featuring the whole ensemble. Two hours of non-stop entertainment. In my little neighborhood. UNDER THE BIG TOP.

I enjoyed the skill and simple beauty of human bodies in motion, but there was another element that was MAGICAL to me.

As I looked around the crowd, maybe around two hundred in total, all sitting on benches, arranged in tiered circles, everybody’s eyes were on the performers. There were families with young children and twenty-somethings on dates. All ages were represented – and nowhere did I see the glow of a smart phone.

This shouldn’t be so rare, but I’ve been to too many concerts and too many nice restaurants where it seemed that the main attraction was texting cryptic conversations with people who were not around.

Here, people were sharing an actual experience in real time. They were seeing the same thing at the same time and fed off of everyone else’s awe and delight. Everyone together under the big top. To me, this was magic.

Enjoying entertainment with friends and neighbors – in the moment — is no small thing.

Funny AND Poignant

make-tacosPretty much every year, I visit the Day of the Dead exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood.

This year marked the 30th anniversary of a public exhibition being held in Chicago. The theme for this year’s exhibition was Dia de los Muertos: Journey of the Soul.

There’s a longstanding Mexican tradition of honoring deceased loved ones by building and decorating altars that reflect their individual lives. That each altar finds a way to penetrate the hearts of total strangers is a testament to shared experience.

Like art, in general, the more personal a display is, the more universal it feels to someone taking it in.

Far from morbid, in showcasing the deceased’s guitars or family photos, favorite foods, things they made, or pictures of celebrity crushes, it feels like a very authentic way to cherish a life.

Unlike Halloween, which is mostly about candy and originality in costumes, the November 1st holiday is for giving each soul a time for remembrance and respect befitting the human life they lived.

In altars and collections of objects curated very thoughtfully and assembled with great care, I’m always struck by the LOVE that’s present.

It’s easy to think that an individual life does not matter much – not in the grand scheme of things –- then walking through an exhibit such as this reminds me that so much love is created around each person’s life and the connections he makes.

Oh, there were some wonderful displays. There was a great textile of an androgynous looking male Tejano singer who crossed the border illegally and managed to create quite a following in his short life.

I lingered on the offendres (offerings) on display for a Chicago cop who gave his life in the line of duty. Accompanying the memorabilia showing him as a family man were accessories for his uniform, which, he was most certainly proud to wear.

I love the museum itself, comparatively small in a city of museums, but somehow always managing to be fresh and familiar at the same time.

I love the Lady of Guadalupe renderings, the divine feminine having such an important place in the culture, and I’m usually affected by the political or social angle of current murals and installations.

After I finished walking through The Day of the Dead: Journey of the Soul exhibit, I walked around other collections at the museum. I did a double take when I saw a simple neon lighted sign above an archway.

MAKE TACOS NOT WAR.

At first I laughed at the twist on the “Make love not war” theme. Then I thought about the sadness that settled over me after the presidential election results were announced.

Since November 9th, I have been in such a high level of disbelief and anxiety about the Bully in Chief assuming the position of such a great influence in the world — over my life.

I thought about Herr Trump’s vow to build a wall between the US and Mexico. What an absurd idea! We need to be more connected to our hearts, not cut off from a culture that reminds us to feel, to remember our humanity.

Was it possible that such a simple message could be funny and so poignant at the same time?

Perhaps that’s a special power of art, too, that apparent opposites can occupy the same space in your thoughts.

Laughing and crying with the same breath is no small thing.

Fatima’s Living Room

deb-at-fatimasOver the past few days, I’ve been working on organizing my photos from my trip to Portugal. I’m trying to pare down approximately 300 images to around 75 that I can caption and make into a slide show.

Although I might take pics of statues (lots of men on horses), colorful laundry hanging from second floor balconies along narrow streets (something I don’t see in my neighborhood) and bridges named after political events that only have a local meaning, I choose images that trigger stories. I pick photos that stir memories.

When I observed myself creating my digital scrapbook, I came to a realization.

I travel so that I can feel AT HOME.

I want to feel I can be myself all the time. I want to feel at ease. I want to feel I belong. To me, that’s feeling AT HOME. What could be greater than to feel at home anywhere in the world?

When Nancy and I were in Coimbra, one of the world’s original college towns (boasting a tradition of young troubadours and a 300 year-old library), we ended up spending a few hours in Fatima’s living room.

We were off the Rick Steves’ suggested walking tour, for sure, and yet had not completely gotten into the mindset of letting things flow to us. We were searching for sardines.

We had spent most of the day, walking up and down hills, checking out artifacts at the history-rich university, and buying some souvenirs to take home. Perhaps we weren’t ready for dinner, but, as it was about 5:00, snacks and some wine or beer seemed to be in order.

Although we were told sardines were out of season, we thought fresh grilled sardines had to be part of our eating adventure. (Perhaps we had seen too many posters of happy Portuguese fishermen with their nets full).

We had been pretty successful finding great eateries by simply walking down streets in areas where cafes were abundant and looking at menu boards. But no restaurant seemed to have grilled sardines listed as a dinner special.

We started walking into restaurants that looked nice and asking the hostess if they knew of any place where we could get some sardines. Eventually, someone pointed to a spot down the alley. Not marked by a sign, there were a few men milling about at a doorway, so we were pretty sure something was there.

The hostess said, “I think Fatima opened up a restaurant a few weeks ago. She might have sardines.”

So we walked through the doorway near where we saw the handful of workingmen standing. It seemed to be someone’s living room. There was a couch and some bookshelves. A few tables and chairs were arranged. There was an informal curtain partition between the sitting area and the kitchen.

Apparently Fatima was a young single mother. She was a gregarious sort and decided to open a restaurant from her home, which was only open when she returned from her day job. A good way to make a little extra money.

She had no menus. She just exuded warmth and welcome. She passed out business cards and expressed her wish that we might tell our friends or write something about our visit on Trip Advisor.

She didn’t have sardines, but with the information that we wanted a snack and wanted to unwind from the day, she brought us cold meats and cheeses, cubes of hearty bread, and a couple of local beers. It was perfect.

We noticed her 10-year old daughter hanging out the couch enjoying the parade of regulars spending a few hours before heading to their own homes. A table of men sat nearby us, eating sandwiches, drinking beer, and laughing.

We struck up a conversation with a tall, middle-aged man who sat alone, but like Norm from the Cheers basement bar, he felt he was with family around Fatima and whoever found their way there. He was slowly consuming a carafe of white wine, happy just to hang out.

He spoke English and, upon learning where we were from, volunteered that he liked Obama and was a bit worried about the upcoming election. He told us where he liked to vacation.

We enjoyed Fatima’s good nature and hospitality and left amazed by our experience of connection.

Oddly, this was one of my favorite experiences in the land of explorers.

Spending a few hours, feeling at home, in a stranger’s (new friend’s) living room is no small thing.